As someone who has gone through counseling in the past, I can now appreciate religion as just another form of irrationality.
When I was in therapy, my counselor gave me a small, laminated index card with a list of the most common cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are any exaggerated irrational thoughts that may be doing people harm by perpetuating some psychological disorders like depression or anxiety. Researcher Aaron Beck first proposed the cognitive distortion theory and David Burns was responsible for popularizing this theory with common names and highlighting the examples for these distortions. I keep this card in my wallet and on occasion, I reach for it in times of anxiety or stress. This is a source of great comfort for me because it allows me to analyze what’s really going on in my mind. Oftentimes I can acknowledge that my trepidation is not justified in a certain situation and by acknowledging that my moment of insecurity will pass, I can relax and get on with my life. I think that by entering into therapy for social anxiety, I have made some progress, although I acknowledge I still have a long way to go. Most essential to the process of therapy for me is to recognize when I feel uncomfortable, then to recognize that acting on those fears may be behaving irrationally and to try to figure out how to modify my irrational behavior and focus on healthier alternatives.
What has struck me in therapy was how sensitive my counselor was in issues of religion. When the topic of religion came up, I politely explained to her, “Well, that’s not an issue, I’m an atheist.” So I wondered if therapists ever discuss a client’s religion insofar as a cause of stress, anxiety, or (and this is the big one) irrational behavior. Because it’s not always so clear whether or not religion is a positive or negative force in a person’s life. It seems as though religion is an insidious mix of good and bad; the good stuff is maximized while the bad stuff is swept under the rug. And it got me thinking; that’s one of the cognitive distortions called magnification (or commensurately, minimization).
How many of these cognitive distortions can you recognize with religious thinking? I can come up with at least one instance where the faithful are encouraged to engage in cognitive distortions for the sake of their belief in God. For example, the idea of heaven and hell is all-or-nothing thinking; as is the idea that there is one true faith or path to God. Magical thinking encapsulates the outlandish idea of petitionary prayer and indeed the entirety of the premise that one can be saved from the eternity of hell by their works. There is a mental filter on some people who insist that those who survive disasters are proof of God’s omnibenevolence. I also consider how sexuality is made to be shameful as one powerful example of the religious disqualify the positives. Not to mention the objection to stem cell research on moral grounds. This is preposterous, especially when stem cells can be gathered from baby teeth and even induced from adult skin cells where no fetus has to be considered for the process at all.
And of course, jumping to conclusions. How many of us have been confronted by a believer, self-assured that we are hell-bound on account of our atheism, based on their conviction that they have privileged access to the intentions of God-Almighty? Believers catastrophize minor events by asserting that certain behaviors are a moral evil that invites God’s wrath. One example of this that comes to mind is the statement of Dan Cathy who, in a statement in August of this year claimed that homosexual marriage would incense God. Emotional reasoning is another common distortion among the religiously-inclined. Often these believers will affirm the presence of God or hear His voice and be assured of its authenticity without questioning whether or not what they feel is a reflection of reality. Albert Ellis termed should statements “Musturbation” and one can clearly see patterns of thought in the Bible that many adherents apply to real-life situations no matter what the circumstances are. History has many fine examples of the labels that believers have thrust upon the irreligious; “infidel”, “apostate”, “heathen”, “pagan”, or plainly, “sinner”. Personalization is also a common trait one finds among the religiously-inclined. Often, negative events in one’s life are attributed to faith, or more precisely, a lack thereof; the outlandish claims of Pat Robertson holding a deal with the devil as the origin of the Haitian earthquake, is one example of this.
It’s not that atheists are immune from irrational behavior; we’re all just as prone at making mistakes. But the key difference between the religious and irreligious is that atheists and the like are not discouraged from challenging those irrational beliefs. No thought is too sacred for probing. I, for one, can see that I may tend to label people of faith with emotionally loaded language. So, too, can I overgeneralize about the behavior of all theists. Yet, most of the religiously-inclined seem to accept a priori that one’s religious vindications are either: always positive, always benign, or always out of bounds. Religious beliefs that do harm to theists and those around them do not get challenged as they should. (The thought that parents can refuse treatment for their children’s ailments on the grounds of their faith comes to mind…) Worse still, many religiously-inclined people go to their pastor, minister, reverend, or priest for support when these holy men and women are not trained psychiatrists or psychologists. (Here’s food for thought: some people go to their priest for marriage counseling. Let that sink in for a moment. Getting sex advice from a celibate man…) However, we must recognize that there are a great many people who depend on religion as a source of moral and spiritual guidance. Extraordinary care must be taken to ensure that counseling someone about their religion not do harm to that person’s well-being. Begrudgingly, I have to recognize that if one has reason to believe that unraveling another’s faith would have foreseeable negative consequences for that person’s sanity, we must tread lightly. But on the whole, people can survive jabs at their religion, and hopefully without immediately decrying how they have been martyred (Personalization, anyone?…)
Why do we allow religious cognitive distortions to be praised in our society when we denigrate non-religious cognitive distortions? I hold that any and all cognitive distortions must be recognized, whether or not they are bishop-, deacon- or parson-approved. If one’s religion causes anxiety or depression, it’s not time to double-down on one’s beliefs or dig into a new faith; it’s time to toss out religion altogether.